Remember #Kony2012? Of course you do. The social media campaign by Invisible Children against the war criminal leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army is impossible to forget because of the way so many Americans—including many white Americans—came together and amplified the cause in the name of justice and human rights.
Invisible Children’s video was viewed 100 million times within six days. In a showing bigger even than the one for the ongoing “ice bucket challenge” for Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, 3.7 million people committed to joining the Kony 2012 struggle. While ultimately unsuccessful in its stated goals of “ending war,” or “stopping the LRA and their leader,” #Kony2012 was effective in galvanizing deep support from white youth throughout the nation.
So, why not #FergusonPD2014?
In other words, why aren’t the same people who called out Joseph Kony demanding accountability from the Ferguson Police Department for its killing of Michael Brown when he was unarmed, and for its violation of peaceful protesters’ constitutional rights to assemble? Yes, it’s true that people of all backgrounds, including some young white activists, are actively involved in the protests in Ferguson. But why aren’t white college students latching on to this and revealing the same overwhelming “commitment” they did to the Kony “cause”?
As a college professor, I remember clearly that during the #Kony2012 campaign, they wanted the world to know that they were outraged by the atrocities going on in Uganda, or at least the atrocities said to be going on at some point in recent history. Why not a similar response to the atrocities going on outside St. Louis?
Because, sadly, this American tragedy doesn’t seem to have the right ingredients.
Besides using social media wisely, Invisible Children deployed a narrative of good versus evil and created enthusiasm around the power of young people in stopping a man intent on turning young men into soldiers and young women into sex slaves. With a click of a button that led the video to be shared on social media, a donation, or putting on some Kony apparel, one could seemingly purchase penance for past inaction and buy peace.
Second, the video and the campaign played upon the long-standing concept of the “white man’s burden” —the idea that white America has a responsibility and a duty to help oppressed elsewhere.
Third, the primary platform of the campaign limited the chance of cross-racial challenges. Facebook, marked by its insular communities, segregation and siloed realities, was the central engine for Kony 2012. This, and the nascent status of “black Twitter,” created conditions under which the “white savior” mentality thrived. While white Americans who participated in Kony 2012 were purchasing a tool kit or contributing to “justice” with their clicks and dollars, they didn’t have to inconvenience or challenge their privilege or identity.
Movements to address injustice when the victims are African American don’t have the same formula. So it’s no wonder that since 2012, there has not been a #Trayvon2013, a movement for #Renisha2013 or a #Ferguson2014. It’s no wonder there have been no viral videos on #Every28HoursABlackManIsKilled, or mainstream efforts to galvanize national attention for Eric Garner or Marissa Alexander or countless others.
It is not surprising that the evils of Kony inspired action and the evils of white supremacy do not. It should not shock anyone that it was stopping LRA overseas, versus stopping police brutality on our own soil, that inspired a generation of white youths toward activism.
In fact, the focus of white youths across the country on arresting Joseph Kony rather than George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson and countless others tells us a lot about race and America. Reflecting entrenched white privilege (including the ability to hand-pick when and where to fight for justice) and a yearning to see evil elsewhere, the fact that #Kony2012 existed and #Ferguson2014 doesn’t should remind us of the politics of whiteness.
Focusing on Kony allows whiteness to be reimagined as benevolence, and America as “civilization,” whereas focusing on Ferguson forces an accounting for white supremacy, anti-black racism and white violence.
Tweeting and making Facebook posts to show one’s concern when the topic is Ferguson or the people responsible for killing Eric Garner—or Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis—would force one to grapple with stereotypes and a racist criminal-justice system that empowers white youths to exist without fear and with virtual impunity. By fighting for justice for the families of Martin or Brown, a white American would have to inspect his or her own backyard and account for racial profiling and deep-seated stereotypes.
“White fear of blackness isn’t just something that racist extremists experience,” writes Chris Crass. And concern for black lives shouldn’t be something only African Americans express. But to become allies or “accomplices” of black activists in Ferguson and nationwide is to challenge the anti-black racism that is at the core of white supremacy; it is to question and dismantle the very belief system that both privileges white bodies and criminalizes blackness.
To join the struggle for justice in Staten Island, N.Y.; Los Angeles; Ferguson; Dearborn Heights, Mich.; or Florida is to say black lives matter as much as white lives. It is to challenge white supremacy.
It appears that’s too tall an order.
Sadly, I doubt #FergusonPD2014 videos, #justice4Renisha shirts or #saytheirnames stickers will be all the rage for white students as they return to school this fall. After all, right now, they and their celebrity role models seem too focused on ice buckets. I hope I will be proved wrong, because the stakes are really high.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman, and the author of a forthcoming book on race, media and gun violence. Follow him on Twitter.
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman.